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Alabama Power retires Plant Gadsden after more than a century of service

The grand dame of Alabama PowerGadsden Steam Plant – will come to rest on Jan. 1, 2023, after more than 100 years of dedicated service to the state.

Looming on the banks of the Coosa River, the red brick, art deco facility is a testament to earlier years, when Plant Gadsden played a crucial role in building Alabama. The original plant was being built when Alabama Power’s first president, James Mitchell, secured the company’s purchase in 1912.

In 1913, it was Plant Gadsden’s ability to produce ready electricity – 10,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) – that cemented the facility’s then-record as Alabama’s largest electric-generating facility.

“The Gadsden Steam Plant was the catalyst that helped spur the economic growth of Alabama in the early 1900s,” said Jim Heilbron, Alabama Power’s senior production officer. “It’s been a steady energy source for us to dependably power our customers ever since. Though it’s the end of an era to close its doors, we will continue to find ways to honor the legacy.”

For Reginald Lusain, a longtime electrical and instrumentation journeyman at Plant Gadsden who retired in April, it is fitting that he retired the same year as his “favorite plant.” Former Plant Gadsden Manager Cassandra Wheeler recalls Lusain as an “amazing, dedicated individual who knew the plant unlike anybody else that I knew.”

Lusain began his Alabama Power career at Plants Miller and Gaston as a plant helper, 10 years after graduating from Jones Valley High School. After working his way through the ranks to become a licensed electrician, Lusain in 2004 moved to Plant Gadsden when he wanted to work at a smaller facility.

“Gadsden is a small plant, and it’s almost like working with family,” said Lusain, one of three Gadsden electricians during that time. “We did a lot of updating and automation to electrical controls in the control room and worked on controls for field handling and the water plant.

“I learned so much and was hands on, and we learned to do our work safely, because that is important while working with electricity and high-voltage equipment,” Lusain said, adding, “We took no chances.”

He was proud that, during his tenure, Plant Gadsden employees’ dedication to working “every day, every job, safely” in 2015 earned a prestigious 5-year Target Zero Award.

Launching the state’s electric era

Upon Plant Gadsden’s completion more than a century ago, the facility provided the needed reserve electricity for Alabama Power to build dams and expand transmission lines, which grew and improved service to the state.

The plant supplied reserve power to Lay Dam and electricity for trolleys, streetlights, manufacturers and others, historian Leah Rawls Atkins noted in her award-winning book “Developed for the Service of Alabama.” Having available power encouraged many companies to move to eastern Alabama.

“It was the beginning of a new era – one driven by electricity,” Atkins wrote. “Gadsden Steam Plant was significant in the development of the state power system.”

Plant Gadsden operated when hydropower wasn’t available. Through the years, the plant was retrofitted several times, but employees’ commitment to providing reliable energy never wavered.

In 1946, the company’s flagship publication, Powergrams, recorded that Alabama Power announced plans to build a new steam plant on Gadsden’s site. Orders were placed for an initial installation of two 60,000-kWh, turbo-generator units to be in service in spring and summer 1949. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held June 9, 1947. Then-company President Tom Martin presented Gadsden Mayor J. Herbert Meighan with a miniature silver spade to symbolize the start of construction, and Meighan mounted a tractor and bulldozed the first cubic yard of dirt. The rest of the year, workers made much progress in excavation and foundation work, which included moving 77,000 cubic yards of earth and rock.

In early winter, the company was building some of the plant 58 feet below ground level, in an area devoted to condensers, pumps, coal pulverizers and other machinery.

On Jan. 2, 1948, Martin addressed Alabama Power’s 4,000 employees on WBRC Radio, mentioning that construction of Plant Gadsden was underway and “progressed as rapidly as the supply of materials would permit … We spent in 1947 approximately $14 million for plant additions, including the Gadsden Steam Plant.” Martin added that more than 125 new manufacturing plants had located in areas directly or indirectly served by Alabama Power. At the time, the company had more than 270,000 customers.

The first of Plant Gadsden’s new units began operating on April 7, 1949. Both units, which were dedicated on Sept. 16, 1949, were built with the ability to use coal or natural gas. The original plant produced electricity until November 1952. The original units were demolished in April 1964, signifying a bygone era.

Beginning in 2000, Plant Gadsden began testing alternative fuel options, including a co-firing system using native switchgrass. The plant received a Southeastern Electric Exchange award for the project in 2001.

Expanding leadership at Plant Gadsden and Southern Company 

Plant Gadsden in 2012 marked a pivotal, historic moment for Alabama Power and Southern Company when Wheeler became the first Black female plant manager.

Wheeler, at Gadsden’s turbine room, was Alabama Power and Southern Company’s first Black female plant manager. (Phil Free / Powergrams)

“We had just begun the transition from coal to gas and also burning biomass,” said Wheeler, who honorably served six years in the Air Force before leaving to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. “We had to have units reliable for the fleet. It was an adjustment due to the change in fuel type. We had an amazing and dedicated team of individuals, many of whom had been there for most of their respective careers. I was privileged to be able to collaborate with people like that.”

Wheeler noted that “Alabama Power is always a noticeably big presence in any community but, in a small community like Gadsden, we stood out. I was happy to be a part of being a citizen where we served in Gadsden.”

Wheeler left Plant Gadsden in 2014 when she was tapped to lead Plant Hammond in Georgia, serving as manager for nearly four years. She later served as director of Georgia Power’s northwest region, before becoming the director of Supply Chain Management for Southern Company in Atlanta.

Her tenure at Plant Gadsden provided important work experiences that helped advance her career.

Wheeler and Plant Gadsden Engineer Billy Zemo in 2012 discuss projects for the facility. (Phil Free / Powergrams)

“The value in building and nurturing community and business partner relationships is something I gained while there, and I sought to take that to the next level,” Wheeler said. “In my current role, having served in operations and later external affairs, I have an appreciation for what our supply chain customers need. I also understand the sense of urgency that sometimes comes with the requests that they have for resources.”

In March 2015, the plant ceased its coal operations and used only natural gas to produce electricity.

The bulk of Plant Gadsden’s power served residential customers. But from 1994 to 2020, the plant also supplied steam – crucial to tire-making – to the nearby Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., its major industrial customer.

Birthing a unique river cleanup movement

In 1999, Renew the Coosa began as a community cleanup project around Plant Gadsden by then employee Gene Phifer. Within a few years, the program morphed into Renew Our Rivers, one of the nation’s largest river system cleanups. To date, more than 120,000 volunteers have removed more than 16 million pounds of trash from Southeastern waterways.

Partnerships are what makes Renew Our Rivers unique. Joined in a common cause – preserving Alabama’s waterways – the campaign has united businesses, federal and state agencies, and community residents.

While the program continues to improve rivers and waterways for future generations to enjoy, Renew Our Rivers also has partnered with Etowah County schools and other school districts to provide educational materials about the importance of conservation and the impacts of littering.

A legacy of service

Alabama Power’s commitment to providing customers the most reliable, cost-effective electricity drove the decision to retire Gadsden’s 70-year-old units, Heilbron said. The company is working on job placements for plant employees, and involuntary job losses from the plant’s retirement are not expected.

To learn more about the diverse resources used by Alabama Power to provide clean, safe, reliable energy to customers, click here.